TUESDAY, Jan. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Stringent mental health screening before deployment appeared to reduce the rate of psychiatric and behavioral problems among U.S. Army soldiers in Iraq by 78 percent, a new study has found.

Among other things, suicidal thoughts and actions fell by half, according to the results of the study, which were released online Tuesday in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Army Major Christopher Warner and colleagues studied more than 20,000 soldiers in six infantry brigades -- three that received screening through a mental health program before deployment and three that didn't. Soldiers were on duty in Iraq during the 2007-2008 surge, and researchers tracked them for six months at the start of their deployment.

The screening process includes the completion of a behavioral health form that triggers mental health evaluations if they're deemed necessary. Soldiers found to be psychotic or have bipolar disorder aren't deployed.

The researchers found that soldiers in screened brigades were less likely to need duty restrictions and evacuations by air for mental health reasons. "It's vitally important to know whether mental health screening works, for both military functioning and the welfare of individual soldiers, and this is the first time the program's been assessed systematically," Warner said in a news release from the American Psychiatric Association.

More information

For more on mental health, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.